Sixty-one heads of state and government officials, headed by Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa and European Council President Donald Tusk, are attending a major bilateral summit in Brussels, which began on June 10 and is set to conclude tonight.
The agenda of the meeting between the E.U. and CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, of which Correa is currently president) focuses on strengthening mutual relations, increasing European investment in the southern hemisphere and establishing closer ties with Cuba, following Havana’s slow but steady comeback into the international community.
Despite Latin America’s growing global importance, the region has long remained a secondary area of interest on the E.U.’s foreign policy agenda.
The only period in which it enjoyed greater prominence dates back to the early 1990s. Back then, largely due to the growing influence of high-profile Spanish officials entering the E.U. structure, the eyes of Brussels were gradually moving away from former French and British colonies and toward the Southern Cone.
As a result, a mutual cooperation agreement was signed in 1994 between the E.U. and Mercosur, a then freshly-established Latin American regional integration vehicle. However, ever since the Spanish contingent, led by Manuel Marín and Joaquín Almunia, left their posts at the European Commission, Latin America began to move down the list of E.U. priorities, only sporadically making headlines in Brussels, mostly due to grave human rights violations.
This year’s summit is supposed to provide a major shift to the stagnated relations. Held under the official title “Shaping our common future: working for prosperous, cohesive and sustainable societies for our citizens,” the conference brings together leaders of all 28 E.U. member states, as well as representatives of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries.
At the summit’s first session on Wednesday, the European Commission pledged to provide €118 million (US$133 million) worth of Brussels-originated investment in Latin America. This move is especially important in light of China’s ever-expanding trade presence in the region. The Asian powerhouse is already a major commodity trade partner for Brazil and Chile, and is making inroads into Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, among others.
Given deteriorating relations with Russia, European countries are forced to seek alternative markets for their exportations, and Latin America could in fact come as a savior for many of Europe’s economies.
A major emphasis is also being placed on modern technologies — E.U. officials declared that Brussels will contribute €26.5 million toward a project laying down a fiber-optic cable between the two continents. Considerable aid is also expected to be provided to sustainability and green energy projects — an area in which, surprisingly, many European municipalities have copied Latin American solutions.
The summit’s first day closed with another pivotal event, when European Council president Donald Tusk announced plans to create the entity’s first-ever bilateral relations agreement with Cuba. As Tusk stated in the summit’s opening keynote remarks, the E.U. “supports the process of modernization in Cuba and [is] committed to concluding negotiations of political dialogue and cooperation agreement.”
Cuba’s vice president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, confirmed Havana’s eagerness to re-open its relations with Brussels, suspended since 2003, after a large-scale imprisonment of anti-Castro journalist and dissidents.
The Cuban question is not new for Tusk. While serving as Poland’s prime minister for the last eight years, he oversaw numerous human rights initiatives undertaken by his country’s representatives to European Parliament. After taking office as the European Council’s president, he continued pursuing a conciliatory stance towards Havana — reflected in his deputy Federica Mogherini’s visit to Cuba in March, the first such visit by a high-profile E.U. diplomat.
Further talks on E.U.-Cuba mutual relations are set to continue on June 15-16 and aim to conclude with an agreement by the end of the year.
The summit closes tonight with a final press conference and a declaration of interest from both parties — most likely centered on “more cultural diplomacy” and “signs of mutual will to strengthen cooperation,” according to Catherine Ray, Mogherini’s spokesperson.